Thursday, March 27, 2014

Is there a future in Marks and Spencer's dreaming?

My parents believed in a few key things: family, arithmetic, the benefits of fresh air, the enduring value of Marks & Spencer.

They would talk about M&S a lot. They praised the things it did right. They averted their eyes from the few things it did poorly in the belief the company should be left to mend its ways in private.

Growing up I absorbed the idea whatever else might change M&S would be here forever. In the last couple of years I've changed my mind.

There are many reasons to raise an eyebrow at the latest instalment of their "Leading Ladies" marketing campaign: from the idea that you spend money on a celebrity photographer like Annie Leibowitz ten years after the end of the era of the celebrity photographer through the painful over-thinking apparent in the casting of the women to the striving for a quality of nobility in the pictures.

But more dismaying than that is the belief that what they need to do is burnish their brand when they should be improving their offer. I was talking to a distinguished magazine editor the other day, somebody who's whole career has been spent in the world of prestige brands, and he said this: "As far as my kids are concerned, brands have had their day. They just want a quality product at the right price."

Last time I went shopping for an item of clothing in Marks and Spencer I went to their biggest store with the actual serial number of the thing I wanted. The assistant tried to be helpful but she couldn't find the thing in stock. The reason she couldn't find it is because she didn't know which sub-brand to look under. That problem was entirely of the company's own making. I left and ordered it on line. It took three days. I don't think you can do business like that any longer.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Bad behaviour's part of football because that's the way we like it

Writing in The Times today about the bad behaviour of parents at children's football matches Rick Broadbent says (£):
it remains a mystery why football managers believe the touchline is the place to be, while rugby’s elite are generally high up in the stadium where they can spot patterns of play and, thus, actually do their job.
It's not got a lot to do with the job. It's got a great deal to do with football fans' perception of the job. Does he look bothered? Is he shouting and pointing a finger? Does he celebrate when we score and look furious when the other lot get one back?

Top football isn't a sport anymore. It's a drama and the leading actors are the managers. The supporting characters, the players, are very often mild-mannered southern Europeans with limited English who are passing through on their way to a slightly better position in a warmer climate.

Only managers like Wenger, Moyes and Mourinho seem to have some skin in the game. Their pride's at stake. We see triumph and disaster written all over their faces. There's no way in the world TV would give that up and so the football authorities will keep on giving them it. Bad behaviour's part of the game, at every level. We wouldn't have it any other way.

Monday, March 24, 2014

If you watch just one interview about the Great War make it this

This is quite something. It's a 1964 interview with Katie Morter, a mill girl from Manchester who married Percy at the beginning of the First World War, saw him recruited by the music hall star Vesta Tilley and then, when she was seven months pregnant with their child, got the letter from his company sergeant saying Percy had been killed.

I use the word "interview" but in fact it's a perfectly-delivered monologue. She tells you details only when you need to know them. She doesn't need the prompting of an interviewer to clarify anything. Her voice quavers occasionally but she doesn't break down. It's like being there.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Can Kate Bush still be Kate Bush?

When Kate Bush last played live she was a commercial and artistic sensation. She was a hot ticket at the time but nothing like as hot a ticket as she will be when she starts the first of fifteen shows at Hammersmith in August.

Back then she was twenty-one. She will be fifty-five when she returns to the stage. She has hardly any experience of what she's setting out to do, which is perform live. Nowadays the big live acts are immensely accomplished, because they're playing all the time. They know what the modern audience acts like, smells like, what it expects and how far you can push it. They are masters of their craft. They wouldn't dream of starting by playing fifteen nights in the same place because they would fear that gives them no opportunity to regroup, to fix things that aren't quite right.

I worry about her but what I worry about most is the audience. I worry that nobody could possibly live up to what her fans expect of her. She may not have changed that much in the last thirty five years. What has changed is the climate of expectation, which has now reached hysterical levels. It's been inflated in direct proportion to the rise in ticket prices. People won't be going along to see what kind of performance Kate Bush is going to deliver.  They're going to see her. They're going to enter the presence. They're going because they couldn't bear to miss it. They will be going along to have their dreams either fulfilled or dashed. Nobody will come out saying "that was OK".

All this crazed expectation reminds me of the quote from Cary Grant. "We all wish we were Cary Grant. Sometimes I wish I was Cary Grant."

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

In praise of High Maintenance

High Maintenance is different. I would say revolutionary but that would probably put you off. It's sort of a TV show but since it's made for the web it can do a lot of things TV can't: episodes that are as long as the story needs them to be; everything shot on location so it never visits the same place twice; characters appear, play their part and then disappear, only to turn up in the background of later episodes. And of course the likelihood is that you'll watch one, then another and another, according to your enthusiasm. As drama or comedy or slice of life or whatever you want to call it, it's wry, humorous and sometimes as sudden as real life.

Each webisode is set in Brooklyn, in the home of somebody you've never met before; the only thing you know for sure is that the pot dealer (he who maintains the high) will turn up at some point. They're dependent on his supply, he's dependent on their discretion and he's inserted into their lives in a way that enables him to see how they live and relate to each other, a bit like a doctor or a priest.

You can watch the first season (or "cycle", as they call it) here.

Could this be the Last Time?

You can't call for a substitute in the world of big rock and roll tours. There's never a sign in the foyer saying "Mick Jagger is indisposed and his part will be sung by an understudy".

The Stones have not surprisingly postponed their Australian tour after the death of L'Wren Scott. That also changes the plans of maybe a hundred thousand people, quite a few of them professionally. The insurance implications must be staggering. Rescheduling it will mean they come up against sporting calendars, which can't be changed. This sort of thing just doesn't happen.

I don't pretend to know what gets Mick Jagger up in the morning but I looked at this picture of them posing by the plane in Perth, clowning as if they'd just come out of the pub and fancied playing a bit of rock and roll, doing their "What us worry?" act, and I thought, I don't know if he'll be able to do that anymore.

We shall see.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A liquid day with Reggie and Kingsley

I love the Internet. I read State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974 by Dominic Sandbrook. He quotes quite a lot from Reggie by Lewis Baston when writing about corruption in that era. This piqued my interest so I bought a copy - for £0.01 plus postage.

Apart from anything else I do like to read about the golden age of drinking. Maudling would sip a brandy and black coffee while reading his mail in the morning. Roy Hattersley, no prude when it comes to the good life himself, remembers a morning meeting with Reggie in the mid-70s when he worked his way through a jug filled with Dubonnet and gin. He's the man who famously declared "What a bloody awful country. Get me a large Scotch" as his plane was climbing away from Belfast. Baston points out that one of his famous neighbours was an even bigger drinker.
Saturday, 13 November 1971, when Reggie's engagements diary records 'Luncheon Mr and Mrs Kingsley Amis, dinner Mr and Mr Kingsley Amis' must have been quite a day.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The internet's twenty-five years old today, which is why I can't remember a damn thing

Somebody said the internet is twenty-five years old today. Funny that because tonight I'm taking part in a charity quiz and I was just listening to a New Yorker podcast in which Timothy Wu talks about how devices like smart phones have augmented our memory.

I'm also making a cup of tea and doing what I traditionally do on a quiz day, which is furrow my brow and think about what might come up. Clearly this is a stupid thing to do but, you know what they say, the harder you practise, the luckier you get.

What Wu has to say resonates with me because I've delegated the act of remembering things to digital devices. The only things I actually know are the things I learned before those devices came along, which was twenty-five years ago.

Beatles singles in order, speeches from Shakespeare, the England World Cup winning team, the registration numbers of cars I have owned. All these things can be instantly recalled. The big events of last year? I'm struggling, partly because I made no effort to commit them to memory and I've always known that it would be the work of seconds to look them up. This could be what we mean when we say things aren't very memorable.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Word podcast 218: Show Notes

Mark Ellen, Fraser Lewry and I got together yesterday at Fraser's place. We'd been talking about doing a podcast for ages. Largely because we enjoyed doing them and it was an excuse to get together and catch up. The beauty of a podcast is that you can just reactivate the old feed and in theory the people who used to get it can get it again. You can get it on iTunes here and not on iTunes here.

I don't know whether there'll be any more. It depends whether we feel like it. Or if somebody feels like paying us to do it. Over the last year a few people have suggested ways we could bring it back in a different form, maybe polish it up a bit and get a sponsor or sell it as a download. I've never seen a way you could do this without losing the soul of it. I'm not being precious about it and I'm certainly not saying that we wouldn't look at trying to make it a commercial concern but for the moment we can't see a way. So we'll do it if and when we feel like it and we won't take any notice of what anyone says about it, which is always a nice feeling.

On this one we talked about Mark's book, which comes out in May. We've got two Word In Your Ear events where I'll be talking to Mark about it. They've both sold out. We also talked about Ben Watt's brilliant Romany and Tom, which he'll be talking about at our next Word In Your Ear event, a week on Friday at the Slaughtered Lamb. This evening also features the country duets of My Darling Clementine and the vocal stylings of Vinny Peculiar. Last few tickets here.

What else? We also touched on Who Is Harry Nilsson? and Beware of Mr. Baker, rock docs that came out a long time ago, I know, but we can only talk about them when we get round to seeing them. Or when the subject comes up. Oh and apologies for suggesting Donna Godchaux is no longer with us. That's the problem with spontaneity.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

People like me don't watch BBC Three - which is why they should keep it

The easiest things for the BBC to cut are the things the chattering classes don't rush to defend. This looks as if it's going to be BBC Three.

I would guess Tony Hall and his people have been weighing up whether tis better to take something away from their middle-aged, middle class core audience, which they already super serve, or to quietly withdraw something from younger consumers of broader entertainment, who don't pay the licence fee themselves and are less brand loyal than previous generations.

It's a hell of a choice and it's one that newspapers have responded to by putting up the prices of their products - thereby penalising the people who care about them - in order to give them away free to other people who aren't that bothered. The difference with the BBC is that the licence fee model means the cost to the user remains the same, no matter how much or how little they may use the service.

And the real problem they are storing up for the future is that the people they have to worry about most - the young people of today, who should be the licence fee payers of the future - use them less and less. Radio listening among young people is declining (so there ought to be less need to pay Radio One presenters so much money that they need to lose some of it in the motor trade) and their TV habits are completely different from yours or mine. The BBC's not a good thing because it provides lots of things you like. It's a good thing because it also provides lots of things that you don't like - one of those things may be BBC Three.

I don't buy the idea the BBC is at death's door. They're the only media organisation on earth that has a clue what its revenue is going to be next year and the year after that. I often feel that the people who are in the greatest hurry to "defend" the organisation put forward the least rational arguments for it. The real crisis for the BBC will be in ten years time when the generation who've grown up with You Tube have the licence fee explained to them. That's going to be a tough sell. Without BBC Three it may be just that bit tougher.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

There's nobody in the magazine business called Janet or John anymore

Went to the PPA's New Talent Awards, which recognises young people working in the magazine business. Most of them would have been under thirty. Among the winners were: Lucy, Oliver, Farrah, Ciaran, Lizzie, Heather, James, Gemma. Sophie, Eva, Kirsty, Laura, Ellie and Andy. When I joined the business Janets and Johns were doing well. They must have slipped behind.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The Ukraine crisis reminds me of an old board game

I can remember being introduced to the board game Diplomacy in the early 70s. It was based on the map of Europe in the late 19th century; it had countries like Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia and Ukraine on it. In those days you assumed these had all disappeared into the Soviet bloc, never to emerge again. The world seemed simpler then.

Monday, March 03, 2014

On May 12th I'm talking to Mark Ellen about rock stars and life. Come along

A friend found this picture of me and Mark Ellen in the BBC archive. It was taken in Golden Square. Mark says it was autumn 1982. That's one of the reasons he's written his memoir Rock Stars Stole My Life! He remembers things and, despite appearances, he's very organised when it comes to keeping a record.

The book comes out on May 12th and on that evening I'm going to be talking to him about it at a Word In Your Ear Event at the Slaughtered Lamb. Tickets are on sale here. You'd better hurry. They seem to be going quickly.

Old hacks keep asking me if I've read any of it. I haven't yet. I will of course.

P.S. In another Word In Your Ear event at the Slaughtered Lamb I'll be talking to Ben Watt about his sensational memoir Romany and Tom on Friday, March 28th. This will be an early evening show which also features music from Vinny Peculiar and the fabulous My Darling Clementine. Tickets for that one here.